Costa Rica's Best Volcanoes

January 29, 2013
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Many people frequently ask me: “Should I go to Belize or Costa Rica, and what is the difference”? Well, the two countries, though not separated by a tremendous number of miles, are as different as night and day. One of the major differences, are the presence of volcanoes in Costa Rica along the central spine of mountains running northwest to southeast from Nicaragua to Panama.

Throughout the highland areas are numerous volcanoes, some which have been dormant for eons while others are still quite active, providing an opportunity for visitors to observe volcanoes that still have smoldering cones, some of which can be viewed from their rims. Some of the more accessible volcanoes include: Arenal Volcano in the Tilaran Mountains and closer to San José are Poas Volcano and Irazu Volcano. There are, of course, many other volcanoes, especially in the Northern Guanacaste Cordillera but those require long and very difficult hikes.

One of the best volcanoes, with close proximity to San José is Poas Volcano. A very good paved road allows visitors the comfort of driving “almost” to the rim of the active volcano. On past trips, I have seen resplendent quetzals along the roadside and once near the top birder’s should watch for the endemic volcano hummingbird. In addition, as one gains elevation along the route, a very large leaf plant becomes very apparent, locally called “poor man’s umbrella.” The leaves are indeed large enough for a person to shelter under during a rain event. Once at the top, a very short walk takes you to the rim of the volcano. Depending upon the direction of the wind, visitors may immediately smell the aroma of sulfur. To many people the smell resembles rotting eggs but I don’t believe too many people have actually smelled rotting eggs so that description may or may not be too valid. Anyway, the aroma or stench of sulfur can be quite significant if the winds are blowing across the volcano towards the parking area. Once arriving at the rim, visitors look down into an almost moon like landscape. The gray color of lava and ash, the orange and reds of sulfur and iron and a steaming hole, not in the center of the volcano but offset and it has formed its own secondary mini cone. If the weather is good, the views of this volcano can be quite magnificent. There is also a trail that allows visitors to walk amongst vegetation that only grows in the acidic zones of active volcanoes and again if one is lucky, a volcano hummingbird may put in an appearance.

Further north is the famed Arenal Volcano. For decades, Arenal was quite active and has actually had major eruptions in the recent past. In fact during my employment with IE, Arenal blew out one side of its cone. This eruption required evacuation from many of the lodges built on the sides of the volcano. For the past year, Arenal has been dormant, but still of interest to many visitors is the lava field, which shows what lava can do to change a landscape in the matter of hours.

The third accessible volcano is Irazu. This volcano is quite famous — its last eruption occurred the day of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Costa Rica. Today, although the volcano is still active, there is much human activity around its base and even up the sides of the volcano. The fertile landscapes allow for agriculture as well as dairy farms. A paved road allows access and morning visits are advised as from the top of Irazu, both the Pacific and Caribbean can be seen...obviously in opposite directions. Irazu, due to its elevation, often gets shrouded in clouds by early afternoon, limiting the view to misty cloud cover. So, on your next Costa Rica tour with International Expeditions, visit one of the active volcanoes. There are not many places in the world where this type of observation is possible!